‘Tis the season of Christmas and Santa Claus, it seems, is everywhere. Children anxiously await his gift-bearing arrival, but some Christians are worried that most of those children — and their parents — don't know who "jolly old Saint Nicholas" really was.
"St. Nicholas was a real person. Not a fairy, not someone who's flying through the sky with reindeer, but an actual person who lived and worked and died and had a full life," said Canon Jim Rosenthal. "He had a Christian life because he was actually a bishop, a pastor."
Rosenthal, director of communications for the worldwide Anglican Communion office, is founder of the St. Nicholas Society UK/USA, an international movement urging churches to reclaim St. Nicholas.
Every year, Rosenthal dresses up like St. Nicholas, complete with a bishop's staff, called a crozier, and hat, called a miter. He visits churches to help spread the St. Nicholas message.
"If we don't recover this tradition, I believe that we are going to eventually lose Christmas, any semblance of a religious Christmas," he said.
Nicholas was born in Asia Minor when the new Christian faith was beginning to spread across the Roman Empire.
"He came from a very wealthy family," Rosenthal said. "His parents died at an early age. His uncle was a priest, and he became a priest like his uncle."
Nicholas rose to leadership in the early church and was named Bishop of Myra, a city on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. During a period of persecution, he was imprisoned. He was eventually released and continued his ministry until his death on December 6 in 343.
"He was known for his generosity and his goodwill because he was very rich," Rosenthal said. "He literally, by the end of his life, gave away all of his fortune. Many stories talk about the fact that he was so generous that he became known as the 'Gift Giver.’"
More and more churches in the United States and the United Kingdom are finding ways to keep the St. Nicholas story alive. In Chicago, for example, St. James Cathedral recently hosted a special St. Nicholas exhibit.
"The stories of St. Nicholas are wonderful stories of a bishop who cared about his people, who cared very much about the poor," said Joy E. Rogers, provost of the cathedral.
There are numerous tales of Nicholas doing good deeds — performing miracles, calming the seas, stopping famine and rescuing children. Separating truth and myth is sometimes difficult.
"My guess is that some of the fanciful stories that have moved into the realm of legend and miracle had their roots in very concrete acts of very real kindness and generosity," Rogers said.
One of the most famous stories involves a poor family who couldn't afford marriage dowries for their three daughters.
"The parents were going to have to sell them off into slavery or into prostitution or whatever," Rogers said. "And St. Nicholas came by the house at night and dropped off three bags of golden coins."
Some legends say he secretly tossed the bags of gold through an open window, and one landed in stockings or shoes that were drying by the fire, thus launching the tradition of the Christmas stocking. Pawnbrokers have especially embraced that story.
"If you go to a pawnbroker shop you'll see three gold balls," Rosenthal said. "Those represent the three bags of gold, which we now turn into chocolate coins, that St. Nicholas threw through the window to save three girls from slavery or prostitution."
Nicholas has been adopted by many groups beyond pawnbrokers.
"So many people wanted him as theirs that he's the patron saint of almost everything: unwed mothers, children — which, of course, is the most prominent, pawnbrokers, and sailors and merchants and cookie makers, apothecaries. You just name it and he's got something to do with it."
Many European countries have a long tradition of celebrating the Feast Day of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6. Then St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus and got all tied up with Christmas.
"If you look at the name Santa Claus, you will see 'Santa' means saint and ‘Claus’ is simply an abbreviation from Nicholas," Rosenthal said. "But the reality is he became a secular image."
American writers and advertisers helped disseminate a new myth that made no mention of the jolly old saint's religious connections.
Church leaders emphasize that Nicholas' generosity was motivated by his Christian faith, that he was following Jesus' command to love others, to help those who are suffering and to do one's good deeds in secret.
"The problem with Santa Claus as it stands now is that it's a substitute for Christmas — Santa Claus instead of the crèche, instead of the manger, instead of the nativity scene," said Rosenthal. "This man we would find kneeling at the nativity scene saying, ‘This is what I'm here to celebrate as well.’''
(EDITOR’S NOTE — A version of this story first appeared on the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.")